A mix of business and commercial property owners from 2233 Huntington Drive, 375 Huntington Drive, 415 Huntington Drive, 825 Huntington Drive and 835 Huntington Drive addressed the San Marino City Council during the public comment portion of the council’s June 24 meeting.
The owners voiced their concerns about a proposed amendment to the city’s land use map, found in the 2003 General Plan, which will be heard by the council during its July 13 meeting.
The land use map designates the “planned future use” of every parcel within the city’s borders. A representative for 475 Huntington Drive, another affected property, did not speak at the meeting.
The city’s planning and building department recommended the amendment to the General Plan Land Use Map to correct an inconsistency between that map and the city’s 1973 Zoning Map, which, according to a July, 2014 staff report, determines “the nuts and bolts of daily development decisions and establishes such things as setbacks, lot sizes, permitted and prohibited uses, parking standards, etc.”
The business and commercial property owners requested more time to express their concerns with the amendment, which they felt could devalue their properties and make them difficult to sell.City
Laurence Perkins, a representative for 415 Huntington Drive, requested a postponement of the July 13 hearing, which could include a vote to correct the map inconsistency.
“We understand and agree that there should be restrictions on the use of the property but we want those restrictions to be made with an underlying commercial zone versus residential,” Perkins said.
Ronald Stein, the owner of 375 Huntington Drive – a medical building and pharmacy – explained, “It is illogical that the best use of this property for the community over the long-term is residential.” He added, “It would significantly damage the value of our property and impair use for commercial purposes.”
Niko Tau, a San Marino resident and owner of a medical office at 825 Huntington Drive, characterized the amendment as “an unfair zoning change” and praised the city council for “preserving the integrity” of San Marino.
“Like most residents here I never want to see apartments or condos here ever,” Tau said. “However, seeing as how all of us here were completely unaware of those changes up until a couple [of] weeks ago, I respectfully ask that we take the time to explore a [fairer] solution that will benefit those involved while preserving the essence of San Marino.”
Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes said in an interview with The Tribune that the owners of the affected properties were notified of the moratorium and other updates as those properties became known to the department. Most recently, the department notified residents within a 300-foot radius of each of the affected properties.
The planning and building department stumbled upon this zoning inconsistency—an improper designation of commercial use in the General Plan Land Use Map at the aforementioned Huntington Drive properties—while conducting research on a proposal to build a nine-unit condominium at 415 Huntington Drive. The developer who submitted the condominium plans eventually withdrew the proposal shortly after a strong showing of community opposition to the project.
The department’s research revealed that residential-zoned 415 Huntington Drive, and the properties at 375 Huntington Drive and 475 Huntington Drive, were improperly designated for commercial use in the General Plan Land Use Map, which would have allowed for the construction of condominiums, mixed-use developments or other commercial entities at those properties.
A city staff report from July, 2014 explained, “[A]t some unknown time and for some unknown reason the city’s zoning map was incorrectly changed to show these properties as [commercial] instead of [residential]. The city’s records do not show that a change of zone has been approved to change the zone from [residential].”
Staff also identified a major potential source of the inconsistency. In a July, 2015 staff report, Cervantes identified that “a majority of the properties listed above contained long-standing ‘use variances’ to conduct limited commercial activities on residentially zoned properties.”
Use variances were outlawed by the California State Legislature in the 1970s, but those that were approved by the San Marino City Council prior to that date remained valid. Many, including use variances at 2233 Huntington Drive, 1635 Chelsea Road, 375 Huntington Drive, 415 Huntington Drive, 475 Huntington Drive and 825 Huntington Drive, remain valid to the present day. The planning and building department has not yet found the use variance for 835 Huntington Drive.
The city council approved a moratorium, which will expire on July 24, 2016, soon after discovering the inconsistency. The moratorium gave city staff more time to find other inconsistently zoned properties by “prohibiting approval of any permit or entitlement to develop property designated commercial in the land use [map] of the general plan and zoned R-1.”
The moratorium did make an exception for “permits that were consistent with the terms of previously approved variances and conditional use permits to allow specified commercial uses on residential zoned parcels.”
The exception would allow the current owners or potential new owners of the affected properties to attain variances and conditional use permits so long as they are within the original ‘use variances’ from decades ago that allow for limited commercial activities.
Since discovering the inconsistency and placing the moratorium, the council has deliberated on the matter a total of four times, giving direction to city staff last year.
“In July 2015, the council directed staff to proceed with the process of a General Plan Amendment to change the Land Use designation of these parcels to Residential, thus making the land use designation consistent with the zoning map,” read a report from this year.
The report also explained the outcome of approving the amendment.
“The owners of the aforementioned properties would still be allowed to operate the existing business and uses under the ‘use variances.’ The city would continue to accept permit applications for improvements or modifications to the buildings as long as they are within the requirements and conditions of the ‘use variances.’ This option would also preclude any applicant from applying for a mixed-use project that includes residential uses above commercial uses.”
Though the amendment would prohibit developing mixed-use projects, a developer could divide the property for residences that met the residential zoning district requirements for a particular property.
Currently an office building on a 49,882 sq. ft. lot, the property at 415 Huntington Drive could be split into five residential properties of “a lot size of no less than 9,000 sq. ft. per residence.”
The planning commission already voted to recommend the amendment to the council at its March 23 meeting this year. Its recommendation also included land use map zone changes to a number of parking lots, including two behind Chase Bank, Sylvan Learning Center and the United States Post Office, one behind Citizens Business Bank and three behind Women’s World, which are all located on Huntington Drive.
City Attorney Steve Dorsey informed the council, which only had three of its members present on June 24, that the council cannot cancel the July 13 public hearing on the amendment.
“You had a lot of people at a meeting in the Barth Room upset about this issue a number of years ago, which is why you installed the moratorium,” Dorsey said. “They had no idea that there would be people coming here today trying to get you to extend it. They may not have any objections to that, but I think they have a right to be heard on that, too.”
Dorsey noted that the council, which will again have only three of its members present on July 13, can continue the item to September. A notice of the public hearing was published in The Tribune on June 24.
If the council does not reach a decision on July 13, the moratorium will expire and theoretically allow owners of the aforementioned properties to receive approval to develop their properties for commercial uses.
The council will discuss, and potentially take action on, the amendment at a public hearing, which will be held during the next city council meeting on July 13 starting at 6 p.m. at City Hall.